"It's better to be approximately right than to be exactly wrong"
- Carveth Read
Social behavior, its locations, and its artifacts are investigated by a manifold of scientists and disciplines, and the diversity of methods reflects the variety of scholarship. Being the largest social science research school in the Netherlands, we harbor a substantial portion of these methods, and aspire to learn and develop yet more methods in the future.
The Methods Expertise Center wants to facilitate access to, and training in, methods that match the research goals of our PhD students and staff. We do so through presentations, crash-courses, and by making accessible current expertise on the web. We broker methodological demand and expertise. In this role we also give feedback on grant proposals, or recruit experts who may do so. We foster methodological innovation, not for its own sake but related to the substantive content of research projects at hand. The MEC is not a geek squad, though: if you don't know how to solve your practical problem in SPSS, GIS, or ATLAS.ti, follow a course!
The variety of methodological expertise in the AISSR often reflects different ontological and epistemological standpoints. We strive for discussions between these standpoints, pragmatism, and for question-based research. We do not see methods as inevitably linked to a single ontological or epistemological position, but rather as tools to be used and combined given the research questions to be answered.
When we start out with scholars’ needs and means to grasp social life, a typology of methods emerges naturally. First of all, social scientists want to know about the variety of social behavior in daily life, and study it unobtrusively with a minimum of disturbances on their part. To this end there is a portfolio of field methods, of which ethnography readily jumps to mind. Recent insights in mirror neurons and the biological foundations of empathy show that ethnography is less subjective than its critics believed, and can yield testable and fairly accurate knowledge, just like other scientific methods can. Moreover, it can be used for those people who can not be reached through survey methods or the Internet. It can be enhanced through video recordings, and complemented by the analysis of written documents. Recently, the Internet has become an important source of data, which are amenable to automated mining and content analysis. When large numbers of people are studied, either online or offline, and one is interested in systematic comparisons or in magnitudes of certain effects, survey methods are often used as well as statistical models. Geographic methods, in turn, show the spatial distributions of social behavior and its artifacts. Finally, social badges or phones can provide longitudinal geographic and social data in one stroke. All these field methods of data collection and interpretation are at the core of our interests.
The resulting knowledge from field studies can be both relevant and realistic. However, the larger the number of people studied, the less tractable and comprehensible their aggregate behavior becomes for the unaided reason. Aggregate behavior is typically no simple sum of individual behavior, but often a non-linear consequence of the actions of interdependent individuals who react upon each other. To gain clarity in such complexity, formal methods are necessary, i.e. mathematical models or computer simulations, with visual support from maps or social network graphs. Clarity through formal and visual modeling can help to achieve parsimony as well, when generally occurring patterns can be shown to exist in complex processes of social action. Along with a range of field methods, we endorse a broad spectrum of modeling approaches.
Furthermore, many social scientists also want a causal understanding of social phenomena, which is difficult to assess in the field where many unobserved factors play a role. Causality can neither be demonstrated in field studies nor proven by formal models, but laboratory experiments can help. At the AISSR, the latter approach is in its infancy, but will become more important in the future, possibly in conjunction with cognitive or biological research. At the MEC we encourage efforts to combine such experiments with field studies and modeling.
The AISSR has developed a procedure for the ethical review of research plans. The aim is for you to devote time and effort to thinking through and making explicit how your research plans will lead to good research, not only in a methodological sense but also in another sense, call it social, ethical, aesthetic or something else.
One might be easily tempted to choose one method above others, and within the limited time frame of a single project this might be a sensible choice. But bear in mind that drawing boundaries between methods, such as qualitative versus quantitative, has proven to be hopelessly counter-productive. The Methods Expertise Center cultivates bridges, not boundaries.
The general point is that for our brains to comprehend the complexities of social life, we are best served by a multitude of methods that complement each other, such that our knowledge is testable, clear, general where possible, and relevant -- by providing insight in causal relations or otherwise. As no single method serves all these noble causes, the MEC will strive for methodological promiscuity.